Time for real change

Jul 1, 2009 at 12:00 am

There's a great temptation to say that, hey, the system works after all! Monica Conyers has pleaded guilty and is presumably on her way to the slam. Kwame Kilpatrick was found out, thrown out, convicted, jailed and run out of town. What more proof do you need?

But if you think that, you are wrong. 

When the system doesn't kick in till you have terminal cancer, it ain't working, comrades. In fact, Detroit's political system is terribly broken. City Council is a breeding ground for corruption. Remember "Fast Lonnie" Bates, another convicted felon? Remember Kay Everett, who died facing federal indictment for, among other things, trading a vote for 17 pounds of sausage?

That's just in the past few years. We can't fix it all at once, and the biggest cure for Detroit's ills would be a few hundred thousand good-paying jobs. But one important way we can start fixing things now is changing the way we elect City Council members. 

Right now, they are all elected at-large, by the entire city. That means all the council members are responsible for everything — and nothing. Detroit City Council members don't have the power to order the lights fixed in your neighborhood, for example. They don't have to live in any particular neighborhood, so they don't. Large stretches of the city have no one on council looking out for the interests of those who live there. Collectively, however, council members do have the power to award multimillion-dollar contracts for things like sludge-hauling. And that's how you get temptation, bribery and corruption.

What's worse, the way they are elected helps make sure we don't get the best possible people. Here's how Detroiters now pick council members. They start out by picking nine names from a primary ballot that may include as many as 300 names. The top 18 names make it to the November election. The voters again pick nine out of 18. (They may also pick fewer, if they choose.) The top nine get to be on City Council; the top vote-getter overall gets to be council president. 

What this means in reality is, familiar names win. That's how Monica Conyers got elected;  why Sheila Cockrel first won; why Martha Reeves made it. Granted, a few hardworking community activists who have earned their chops make it too, but this is really about name recognition. And how could it be otherwise? 

Do you have the time, ability and patience to sort through 300 names — or even 18? I don't, and I study this stuff for a living.

Fortunately, we now have a chance to fix this mess. A new group called Detroiters for Council by Districts is working hard to get a proposal on the November ballot that would amend the city charter.  They would replace the present system with one where Detroiters elect seven members by district and two at-large. That would make sure every area of the city had some representation — and that two members would be thinking of the interests of the overall city at large. 

Francis Grunow, a white law student born and raised in Detroit who can't imagine living anywhere else, is working hard on the effort.

"Detroiters took the first step when they passed Proposal C, which will overhaul the city charter," he said. "But that won't necessarily result in council by districts. This is how every other big American city elects council members — either just by district, or in a combination of district and at-large." 

So why not here? Ten years or so ago, I took the late Maryann Mahaffey, then council president, and Kurt Metzger, aka the Great Demographer, to lunch to talk about the idea. Kurt, then the head of a population studies operation at Wayne State, said his shop could design a fair and equitable district system in a heartbeat. That is, if council wanted him to. Maryann said that it would be fine with her; she could have gotten re-elected anytime under any system, and knew it. But she said council would never go for it. They would be suspicious, she said, that it would be an attempt to carve out a "white seat" or two. Plus no one already on council wanted to have to move to represent some other neighborhood. Well, times have changed. For one thing, there are essentially no areas left that would be apt to elect a majority white councilman. We've also had a lot of corruption since then, and the city has continued to lose population and jobs and drift downhill.

And Detroit's politicians have made the situation worse. The city needs responsible leaders, and Detroiters at least deserve a chance to vote on moving to council by districts. But in order for that to happen, Detroiters for Council by Districts needs help. They are largely a coalition of good-government-style organizations, including the League of Women Voters; the Black Slate, ACORN and some Wayne State law students like Francis Grunow. 

They don't have the money a special interest group would to hire signature-collecters. They need volunteers. If you are interested, check out their website: councilbydistricts.org. You can find out who to contact, how to circulate petitions, where to turn them in, all that.

They've got about half the signatures necessary and only need a few thousand more, but they need 'em in the next few weeks. If you are interested, and you are reading this on Wednesday, Council By Districts is holding a fundraiser from 7 to 11 p.m. at the Town Pump Tavern on Montcalm, just west of the Fox.

They are asking for $20, about the cheapest fundraising ticket I've heard of since the last time Abraham Lincoln ran, and they will give you a spiffy oval "CXD" bumper sticker.

Trust me, and think of Monica. Detroit needs to do this, now. 

Miracle of the Miracle League:
Want to do something nonpolitical that would make you feel good, help your fellow man and not cost a cent? Consider volunteering to be a buddy for the Miracle League of Michigan, a baseball league for special-needs kids.

Vic "Daffy" Doucette, a former Metro Times copy editor, is a honcho in the six-year-old league, which means he works hard and isn't paid. He does, however, announce some games, which are played over the weekend at the Southfield Municipal Complex. "I try to create the same sound and atmosphere you get at a big-league game," he said.

This is where kids who otherwise might never play an organized sport can play baseball. The athletes, most between 5 and 20, play on a wheelchair-friendly field. The league has everything it needs, except … a few angels in the outfield, infield and behind the plate. "Most of our players require on-field assistance from folks we call 'buddies.'" Doucette said.

"We've had to pull family members out of the stands to lend a hand. They don't mind, but they usually prefer to sit and watch for an hour or so, to lessen the burden of caring for a child who may have a serious disability." 

Helping these kids beats the hell out of paying tons of money to see millionaires at Comerica Park. To find out more, contact Doucette: [email protected], or Steve Peck, league president, [email protected].

Tell 'em Wacky Jacky sent ya.

Jack Lessenberry opines weekly for Metro Times. Contact him at [email protected]